Modest Proposal To
Save The Planet
By Mayer Hillman
28 May, 2004
Our leaders are
finally waking up to the fact that climate change, far from being a
'green' fantasy, is a real, imminent and potentially catastrophic threat
to humanity. Yet preventative action seems to be as remote as ever.
Isn't there something we could be doing? In an extract from his acclaimed
new book, Mayer Hillman advocates radical changes to the way we conduct
our daily lives that would ensure a future for our children
Climate change is the most serious environmental threat the human race
has ever faced; perhaps the most serious threat of any kind. The dangers
can hardly be exaggerated. Within 100 years, temperatures could rise
by 6C worldwide. Much of the earth's surface could become uninhabitable,
and most species could be wiped out. In the UK, over the next 50 years,
we will experience hotter, drier summers, warmer, wetter winters and
rising sea-levels. In most of our lifetimes, millions of British people
will be at high risk from flooding; there will be thousands of deaths
from excessive summer temperatures; diseases from warmer regions will
become established; and patterns of agriculture and business will have
to change for ever.
This is not the
view of alarmists, but the considered opinion of the overwhelming majority
of international climate scientists. It is acknowledged by most governments
and their advisers. Last month, government-funded scientists at the
University of Washington in Seattle made the key admission that the
troposphere is indeed warming at 0.2C per decade - precisely as predicted
by the main global-warming models. The UK Government's chief scientist
warned the same month that if global warming continues unchecked, by
the end of this century Antarctica is likely to be the only habitable
The World Health
Organisation blames climate change for at least 160,000 Third World
deaths last year. Tony Blair admitted that climate change was "probably
the most important issue that we face as a global community". The
message is clear. Doubting the imminence of significant global warming
may once have been an intellectually defensible position. It isn't now.
Decisions must be
taken as a matter of urgency. We cannot rely on optimism. We need to
think beyond energy efficiency and renewable energy, towards ideas of
social and institutional reform and personal changes that require much
lower energy use. Yet government action is only scratching the surface,
and current policies on transport and growth can only make things worse.
We are on the road to ecological Armageddon, with little apparent thought
for the effects on the current population, let alone those who follow.
It doesn't have
to be like this. Nor does anyone want it to be. The UK government said
in 1990 that it was "mankind's duty to act prudently and conscientiously
so that the planet is handed over to future generations in good order".
This is crucial. As well as posing the most demanding challenges to
the character and quality of our way of life, the issue has to be seen
and acted on from a moral perspective.
Taking this as a
starting point - that it is a matter both of necessity and of responsibility
to try to save the planet - only one solution has a realistic prospect
of success. This article is an attempt - made more fully in the book
I have written with Tina Fawcett, How We Can Save the Planet - to bring
that solution to the centre of public debate.
The direction is
simple and generally agreed: cuts must be made to greenhouse-gas emissions.
The difficult part, where moral as well as scientific questions arise,
is deciding by how much, by when and by whom. Should the most "energy
profligate" nations and individuals be obliged to bear the greater
burden of emissions reductions?
The solution set
out here - first at a global level and then at a local, individual level
- is radical. But it can achieve a sufficient decrease in emissions,
by a set date, transparently and fairly, so that it can command wide
public and political support. For the UK to adopt this strategy will
mean that it can meet its own commitments to greenhouse-gas reductions
and show global leadership.
The most plausible
way to reach a just - and thus realistic - global agreement on emissions
reduction is the system known as Contraction and Convergence (C&C).
This brilliant and simple method was first proposed by the Global Commons
Institute (GCI) in 1990, and its unique qualities have been widely recognised.
A large number of national and international bodies have endorsed it,
including - in the UK - the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution,
the Cabinet Office'' Performance and Innovation Unit, and the Greater
C&C is founded
on two principles: first, that global emissions of carbon dioxide must
be progressively reduced; and second, that the reductions must be based
on justice and fairness, which means that the average emissions of people
in different parts of the world must ultimately converge to the same
level. This latter requirement has not been included for moral reasons
alone; climate change cannot be restricted to a manageable level without
all countries sharing this common objective.
climate negotiations to just two questions. First, what is the maximum
level of carbon dioxide that can be permitted in the atmosphere without
serious climate destabilisation? Second, by what date should global
per capita shares converge to that level?
The targets in the
Kyoto protocol are not based on a reliable understanding of the safe
limits of greenhouse gases: rather, the reductions were determined by
what was considered to be politically possible in developed countries.
By contrast, C&C would use the best scientific knowledge to set
maximum safe levels of carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere (now
estimated at 450 parts per million), and hence the maximum cumulative
While the date of
convergence would be subject to agreement, the principle of equal rights
for all would remove the potentially endless negotiations that would
otherwise occur, with each country making a case that its contribution
to global reductions should be modified in light of its special circumstances.
element of the C&C proposal is the ability of countries to trade
carbon-emissions rights. Countries unable to manage within their agreed
shares would, subject to verification and rules, be able to buy allocations
of other countries or regions. Sales of these unused allocations, almost
invariably by vendor countries in the Third World, would fund their
development in sustainable, zero-emission ways. Developed countries,
with high carbon-dioxide emissions, gain a mechanism to mitigate the
expensive early retirement of their carbon capital stock, and benefit
from the export markets for renewable technologies this restructuring
The next step is
for our government to adopt the principle of C&C, and to lead diplomatic
efforts to establish it as the basis of future international agreement.
The UK cannot act unilaterally. But this does not mean it cannot be
in the vanguard. What would happen if it did? Or, put another way: how
can a reducing emissions quota be shared out?
Based on the equity
principle in C&C, the obvious answer is for a system of personal
"carbon" rationing for the 50 per cent of energy that is used
directly by individuals. Indeed, as part of a global agreement, per
capita rationing would be the obvious mechanism for all countries.
The main features
of this would be:
* Equal rations
for all adults (and an appropriate fraction for children);
* Year-on-year reduction
of the annual ration, signalled well in advance;
* Personal travel
(including travel by air and public transport) and household energy
use to be included;
* Tradeable rations
between individuals; and
* A mandatory, not
voluntary, arrangement, instituted by government.
people equal carbon rations - an equal "right to pollute",
or an equal right to use the atmosphere - is equitable in theory and
reflects the international equity principle in the C&C proposal.
There may have to be some exceptions to this rule. However, in general,
it will be better for society to invest in provision for the energy
efficiency of "exceptional" cases so that they can live more
easily within their ration, rather than to keep tinkering with the ration.
The more exceptions granted, the lower will have to be the ration for
the rest of the population.
The rations will
have to decrease over time, in response to the need both to reduce emissions
and to allow for a rise in population. Giving due warning of future
ration reductions would allow people to adapt homes, transport and lifestyles
at the least cost and in the least disruptive way to them individually.
Experience has shown that industry has been able to produce more effici-
ent equipment (fridges, washing machines) at no extra cost if given
time to adapt the design and manufacturing processes. The same is likely
to be true of people adapting to low-energy, low-carbon lifestyles.
With personal travel
and household energy use included, half of the energy-related emissions
of carbon dioxide (CO2) in our economy is covered. The other half comes
from the business, industry, commerce and public sectors, which produce
the goods and services we all use.
In theory, it might
be possible to manage this half by calculating the "embodied"
emissions in each product or activity (such as all the emissions from
the processes entailed in the production, transport and disposal of,
say, stereo equipment, or cars) and give consumers a further allowance
for buying products. But this would be very complex and data-intensive,
as well as being very difficult to apply to some goods and services
- how could you "carbon rate" a haircut, or a hospital stay?
It would be much simpler to make the non-domestic sector directly responsible
for reducing its share of CO2 emissions (for which a separate rationing
scheme, on similar lines but not described in detail here, would be
Not everyone will
need to use their full carbon ration. Those who lead lives with lower
energy requirements, and who invest in efficiency products and energy
renewables, will have a surplus, which they can sell. Those who travel
a lot, or live in very large or inefficient homes, will need to buy
this surplus to permit them to continue with something like their usual
lifestyle. Thus people will want to trade carbon rations.
says that by allowing trading, any costs of adapting to a low-carbon
economy will be minimised. Price would be determined by availability
of the surplus set against the demand for it. For this purpose, a "white"
market would be created, possibly via a government clearing "bank",
or a version of the online auction system eBay (cBay?). There would
be little chance for a "black" market to develop.
that appeals to reason and conscience have not been sufficiently effective
in achieving major changes in our irresponsible patterns of behaviour
and consumption. To be effective, therefore, carbon rationing would
have to be mandatory. A voluntary approach would not succeed: the "free-rider"
would have far too much to gain.
But managing carbon
rationing should be simple. Each person would receive an electronic
card containing that year's carbon credits. The card would have to be
presented on purchase of energy or travel services, and the correct
amount of credits would be deducted. The technologies and systems already
in place for direct-debit systems and credit cards could be used.
A number of social,
technical and policy innovations would be needed to make it possible
for people to live within their carbon allowances. On the technical
side, these could include "smart meters" that inform people
how much of their annual ration is left; which appliances are using
most energy; and how much carbon could be saved by, for example, reducing
the time spent in the shower, or by heating bedrooms only in the late
evening. Alternatively, energy companies could install sophisticated
carbon-management systems in houses, which take these decisions automatically
and guarantee carbon savings. In terms of policy, equipment that uses
less energy could be favoured through devices such as VAT, labelling,
minimum standards and subsidy.
At present, the
purchase of the most efficient types of equipment is encouraged, whether
it be cars, refrigerators or washing machines. In future, the emphasis
will be on items using the lowest amount of energy or with the lowest
emissions, with much better information available at the point of purchase
of everything that uses energy, from new and existing homes to televisions
and mobile phones. It will thus be in the economic interest of manufacturers
to supply goods that make the lowest use of carbon. Socially, one would
envisage that attitudes would change so that thrift rather than profligacy
in energy use and carbon emissions was increasingly preferred.
There has been no
recent experience of long-term rationing (other than by price) in the
UK. The nearest comparison is the food rationing introduced in the Second
World War, when the availability of food, clothing and other goods had
to be reduced drastically. Despite difficulties, contemporary opinion
polls showed that rationing and food control were, on the whole, popular.
Equity - the principle of a flat-rate ration for all - was a key feature
of its introduction and maintenance and was widely accepted as the only
fair approach, to which no one could reasonably object.
In the case of climate
change, the principles of carbon rationing are far more straightforward
than the quite complicated wartime system. But the benefits would be
less immediately obvious. It is therefore particularly important that
a cross-party consensus be achieved on the benefits of C&C and the
adoption of carbon rationing. The future of the planet is too important
an issue to be treated as a political football. It would be devastating
if there were no common purpose, and instead political groupings vied
with each other to obtain electoral support by making less demanding
commitments on climate change in manifestos.
However, the likelihood
of achieving such co-operation is by no means remote - it is just that
a consensus has not yet been sought. None of the main UK parties has
expressed reservations about either the significance of climate change
or the need for serious, concerted action to limit its impacts. The
challenge now is to convince politicians - and the electorate they represent
- that the time for concerted action has arrived.
is not a perfect solution. It will have its losers as well as its winners.
Energy-intensive industries, such as motor manufacturing and international
tourism (dependent as it increasingly is on flying, which is the most
damaging of all human activities from a climate-change perspective),
will no doubt object strongly to the concept of C&C. Its adoption
will lead to a steady reduction in demand for their products and services,
with consequent job losses. The future of international events attracting
participants from across the world - whether for sporting, cultural,
academic or business purposes - is, clearly, threatened. But such consequences
cannot be considered a sufficient justification to reject what is so
obviously the only assured solution to a planet-threatening problem.
The rationing system
will bring rising environmental benefits in its wake, particularly in
terms of the imperative of limiting damage from climate change, while
spheres of the economy that are not energy-intensive - such as education,
non-motorised travel, local shopping and leisure activities and domestic
tourism - are likely to prosper. The important thing to remember is
that this proposal is for a phased reduction, over a sufficiently long
period to ease the transition towards ecologically sustainable patterns
And if a world with
personal carbon rationing seems unacceptable, just imagine how much
less acceptable would be a world in which effective action had not been
taken to tackle climate change. The point of departure must be that,
if we do not make substantial alterations to our lifestyles, the problem
of climate change will intensify.
Education will be
vital to break the cycle of denial. The media, too, will have a role
to play - although given the proportion of their income derived from
advertising "high carbon" products and activities, they are
unlikely to lead the way. Meanwhile, anyone who cares about our future
wellbeing and that of the planet should not turn a blind eye to the
likelihood that the consequences of inaction will be awesome.
For most readers,
the notion of calculating one's own carbon-dioxide emissions will be
an unfamiliar one. The tables are intended to aid the development of
what might be called "carbon literacy" - a vital first step
towards adopting energy-thrifty lifestyles. The concept is not very
different from the familiar idea of a household budget in which we manage
our expenditure so that we do not run into debt. We must now learn to
apply the same kind of simple management skills to energy-dependent
aspects of our lives - at home, at work, in our travel and in our leisure
There are three
stages to the process: first, to calculate the carbon emissions from
the energy we currently use; second, to calculate how much we can actually
be allowed; and third, to work out how best to make the necessary transition
from our current emissions to sustainable emissions.
Most of the energy
used in households is gas and electricity. In each case, your usage
will be indicated on your bill, in kWh (kilowatt hours). To calculate
your carbon dioxide emissions, multiply your annual consumption of electricity
in kWh by 0.45; and multiply your annual consumption of gas in kWh by
0.19. This will establish your emissions from these sources in kilograms
of CO2. (For heating oil, the multiplier is 2.975.) Finally, you should
divide each total by the number of people in your household to give
you your individual emissions.
the annual distance you travel, in kilometres, for each method of transport:
car, rail, bus, bicycle, air, etc. The table shows all the options.
For car travel, discount journeys in which you were not the driver (to
convert miles into kilometres, multiply the miles by 1.6). Next, multiply
each annual total by the "kilograms co-efficient" shown in
the table. You can make this calculation both for yourself as an individual
and, if you like, for your household.
When you have added
up all your major sources of personal CO2 emissions shown in the table,
you will know your approximate annual emissions from direct energy use.
Compare this with the current British individual average of 5.4 tonnes
CO2 to see how you are doing. However, remember that about half the
energy in the UK economy is used by the industrial, commercial, agricultural
and public sectors to provide our goods and services. So, your total
should actually be doubled to cover your share of these non-domestic
sectors of fuel consumption. For the projections in the rest of this
article, however, we will focus simply on your domestic consumption.
* The UK government's
60 per cent reduction target for 2050 would stabilise carbon concentrations
at 550 parts per million (ppm). A more realistic view, in the light
of current scientific knowledge, is that the maximum concentration in
the atmosphere that should be considered safe is 450ppm. The table shows
the degree of reduction required for both targets. Either will require
substantial changes in our lifestyles.
Compared with expected
average emissions figures for 2005, the 550ppm scenario requires a personal
reduction of 63 per cent by 2050, and the 450ppm scenario requires an
80 per cent reduction by 2050. In both these scenarios, the ration shown
would be equal for everyone in the world by 2050. For the 450ppm scenario,
which requires a faster rate of change, the ration would be equal by
The figures in our
tables, including the total you have calculated of your own emissions
- should shock you. Under the 450ppm scenario, a single return flight
from London to Athens would exceed your entire personal carbon ration
for the year in 2030. Even on the less rigorous 550ppm scenario, your
annual ration in 2030 would not be enough to cover a return flight from
London to New York.
Yet there is no
need to despair. Energy-use patterns have changed considerably in recent
decades. Energy used for personal travel has almost doubled since 1970.
Under the 450ppm scenario, CO2 emissions from personal travel would
have to halve over the next 20 years. If a significant reduction in
motorised travel is made in parallel with energy efficiency and low-carbon
technologies, this will not represent a much greater rate of change
in mobility than the UK has already experienced in recent memory - it
will just be moving in a different direction. The change isn't going
to be easy, but it is not unrealistic.
CHANGING OUR HABITS
Climate change cannot
be limited solely by the actions of individuals. However, each individual
needs to make a contribution by reducing his or her "carbon impact".
This advice suggests ways you can do so.
As with any destructive
habit, part of the answer is simply to face the facts. So, having looked
at your annual energy consumption in order to audit your current emissions,
it is worth considering in more detail how that energy is used, so that
you can identify the major areas of opportunity in which to make savings.
The split of energy
use in the home between heating and hot water depends very much on your
house and style of life. For gas central-heating, the average split
has been estimated as: 70 per cent space heating; 28 per cent water
heating; and 2 per cent for cooking with gas. This split between heating
and hot water also applies to other fuels. A more efficient or newer
house will use less heating energy; large, inefficient or old homes
will use more heating energy; households with more people will use more
hot water. Think about your own household and how you might differ from
is used in your home will again depend on what lights and appliances
you have and how you use them. The average UK home uses 24 per cent
of its electricity on fridges and freezers, and 24 per cent on lighting.
Lighting can easily and cheaply be made more efficient, but the same
is not true of fridges and freezers.
But heating is where
we are most wasteful. Many people can make very significant savings
simply by learning to use their heating and hot-water systems more efficiently.
Are you making the best possible use of times and thermostats? Are there
minor adjustments you could make to be less profligate with heat? Simply
switching off your heating half an hour earlier could save more than
5 per cent of your energy bill.
Areas to consider
* Bathing and showering
options: could you use less, or less hot, water?)
* Lighting: installing
energy-saving light bulbs in the four lights you use most could save
200kWh per year, or more than a quarter of the electricity typically
used for household lighting.
* Saving on standby:
turning off all the TVs, rechargers and other gadgets that you leave
on standby can save up to 10 per cent of your electricity. (In some
cases you may need to unplug them.)
* Washing machines:
switching from 60C to 40C could save 40 per cent of energy per cycle.
* Dishwashers: again,
a 55C cycle uses around a third less energy than a 65C cycle.
* Kettles: boil
only as much water as you need.
* Cooking: using
a microwave rather than a normal oven will save energy.
* Microwaves: switch
off the electronic clock display, which could well be using as much
electricity per year as you use for cooking.
* Insulation of
lofts and cavity walls: this requires some investment, but it is one
of the most cost-effective ways in which to save energy. Insulating
unfilled cavity walls can save up to 30 per cent of your heating energy
and will pay for itself within a few years.
options: avoid patio heaters; air conditioning; a large, frost-free
fridge-freezer; a power shower; a 300-500W security light that switches
on all the time; heating your conservatory.
Again, your first
step here should be to face the facts. Begin by writing up your own
transport use diary, for a week or a month. Note the day of the week,
time, origin, destination, purpose, method, cost and duration of each
trip. This information will be critical in helping you to prioritise
changes in your patterns of travel.
your patterns, you may find it easier to see ways of making them less
carbon-expensive. Flying needs to be drastically reduced: it is not
only the most damaging means of travel per mile but is also associated
with the longest journeys, and thus adds both considerably and disproportionately
to climate change
Other changes might
include walking and cycling for local trips; using more buses; combining
several purposes in one journey; or simply cutting out less essential
long-distance car and rail journeys.
It is also possible
to reduce your own carbon emissions when you do travel by car. Government
* Plan ahead: choose
uncongested routes, combine trips, share cars.
* Cold starts: drive
off as soon as possible after starting.
* Drive smoothly
and efficiently: avoid harsh acceleration and heavy braking.
* Travel at slower
speeds: driving at 70mph uses 30 per cent more fuel than driving at
* Use higher gears.
* Switch off the
engine when stationary.
* Don't carry unnecessary
* Use air conditioning
also responsible for, and can control, their indirect energy use as
consumers. Modifications to consider include:
* Buy food and drink
that has not been transported over long distances. Where possible, buy
local, or at least British, produce.
* Choose more seasonal
food, which is less likely to have been grown abroad or in heated greenhouses
in the UK.
* Buy recycled products,
or those with a high recycled content.
* Buy products that
are recyclable, and whose packaging can be recycled.
* Avoid disposable
products. Buy better quality ones, which have a longer life.
* Reduce the amount
of waste you produce. Re-use what you can, and recycle the rest.
* Compost garden
and vegetable waste.
these changes into your lifestyle will not be easy. But that does not
mean that - if we adopt carbon rationing - they will all be negative.
On the contrary, many of them should be highly positive in their effects.
Better health, quieter and safer streets, more stable communities, less
oil dependency, and less road danger will be among the wide range of
But they run counter
to current trends in society, and require thought and commitment. The
challenge facing us is to invest that thought and commitment today,
while there is still time. It is all too clear that we cannot go on
as we are now, paying little more than lip service to this most critical
If we in the developed
world do not agree to substantially restrict our own carbon dioxide
emissions, there are only two possible outcomes. Either we will witness
and bear the costs of an inevitable and devastating intensification
for future generations of the problems caused by climate change - as
well as the burden on our consciences. Or poorer people, mainly in developing
countries, will have to be prevented from having their fair share of
the fossil fuels required to maintain even a basic standard of living.
Burying our heads in the sand on this topic to avoid facing reality
with government to take the lead in international negotiations for the
urgent adoption of the contraction and convergence framework, and for
the early introduction of an equal per capita annual carbon ration.
We have to choose
a better future.
Dr Mayer Hillman
is Senior Fellow Emeritus at the Policy Studies Institute. This article
is an edited extract from 'How We Can Save the Planet', by Mayer Hillman,
with Tina Fawcett (Penguin, £7.99)